A sure-to-be infamous chapter in Chicago architectural history played out in a single surreal afternoon last week, as the Chicago Commission on Public Landmarks awarded and then rescinded landmark status for an important piece of city’s trove of significant 20th-century buildings—Bertrand Goldberg’s Prentice Women’s Hospital.
It was the shortest-ever landmark designation for a city icon, a troubling instance of disregard for the city’s main claim to fame, and a jaw-dropping demonstration of the smoke and mirrors that pass for democratic process here.
The building’s fate had been as good as sealed two days earlier, when Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced that he favored clout-heavy Northwestern University’s plan to destroy the currently vacant hospital and replace it with a medical research center.
This was an odd decision for the mayor who’s made Chicago’s reputation as a global destination his mantra. He’d already been advised by more than 80 architects, including eight Pritzker Prize winners, that the internationally recognized building ought to be saved.
Once Emanuel had spoken, Prentice magically appeared on the agenda for consideration by the landmarks commission, a feat preservationists had been unable to achieve in almost a decade of lobbying.
They might have saved themselves the effort.
What they got was a piece of political theater in the service of a fait accompli.
The first clue was an unprecedented change in the commission’s procedure. The agenda, posted two days before the meeting, indicated that Prentice would be receiving special treatment. A multistep process intended to unfold over a period of months would be squeezed into a single event, rushing directly—in the time-honored blink-and-you’ll-miss-it Chicago way—from preliminary consideration to final resolution.
The meeting, held November 1, was moved from the commission’s usual space into the City Council chambers to accommodate a crowd. The landmarks commission—made up of nine mayoral appointees—first heard a report from its own staff. Goldberg’s cluster of concrete towers cantilevered over a Meisian base, the report concluded, is more than qualified for landmark designation, meeting at least four criteria when only two are required. (According to the report, Prentice qualifies on the basis of its historical value, exemplary architecture, Goldberg’s significance as a designer, and the building’s unique visual appearance.)
Then the public got its say, in three-minute segments. First up was Northwestern University vice president Eugene Sunshine, who testified that the university, which owns Prentice, sees “no value to us in the existing building.” He also warned that forcing Northwestern (which he said employs 17,000 locals) to retain Prentice “would have a significant detrimental effect on Chicago.”
The prelude to this testimony was a clumsy PR campaign NU’s been waging over the last few months, attempting to pump up support for destroying Prentice by presenting the issue as a choice between saving a building and saving lives. The university’s main argument, reiterated by Sunshine, claims that the new research building must connect floor by floor with the Lurie Medical Center next door, in order to provide something like coffee-klatch interaction between the 2,000 scientists who would work in that building and the 700 or so working in Lurie.
Sunshine was followed by a long parade of architects, preservationists, and residents, some of whom pointed out that Northwestern and its affiliated institutions (including Northwestern Memorial Hospital) have other options on the 25 acres they own in Streeterville.
And after hours of compelling testimony by experts—including Michael Eiben, who worked with Goldberg on Prentice’s groundbreaking computer design process, and John Vinci, who cocurated the recent Goldberg exhibit at the Art Institute—the commissioners were convinced. They voted unanimously to award the building preliminary landmark designation.
It was a short-lived victory for the preservationists. As soon as the vote was taken, commission chairman Rafael Leon called for the city’s Department of Housing and Economic Development to present its report, which, as one subsequent commenter noted, “must have been completed before it was ever requested.”
HED bought into NU’s building-preservation versus cancer-cure-and-jobs argument and recommended that the commission rescind its preliminary designation. This triggered another round of public comment, during which Preservation Chicago head Jonathan Fine said lawyers for his group are looking into whether this “foreshortened procedure” is legal; former alderman Burton Natarus testified that Northwestern hospital brought him back from the dead and the university should be allowed to do whatever it wants; and NU trustee Dennis FitzSimons noted that many in the neighborhood consider the building an “eyesore” and urged demolition in the service of a “greater good.” Former landmarks division deputy Jim Peters opined that Northwestern “appears to be land banking” and warned that rescinding the landmark designation now “would create a terrible precedent.”
After nearly six total hours of testimony the commissioners were polled again, and with a single dissenting vote they rescinded Prentice’s landmark designation.
The single nay vote was cast by commissioner and retired Roosevelt University history professor Christopher Reed, who earlier in the proceedings had worried aloud about the city’s architectural heritage. “If Prentice goes down, I’m afraid that in the future Hilliard will go down, and my grandchildren will be told there’s still Marina,” and then Marina Towers will go down, Reed said. “This is a serious matter for a city that claims to be world-class.”
After the meeting, Reed explained his lone vote this way: “I thought Northwestern made specious arguments.”